PROKOFIEV String Quartets Nos 1-2
Prokofiev’s chamber music is at last making an impact in the recital room yet remains curiously under-represented on disc given the ubiquity of a certain Soviet Russian contemporary. (The older composer would have been vexed indeed!) Fortunately this is just the kind of collection to challenge preconceptions. The logical and useful coupling has been tried before but the Emerson Quartet’s unyielding, high-powered projection was not much liked in these pages. There’s almost too much light and shade with the Pavel Haas Quartet, whose emotional engagement, youthful ardour and occasional penchant for extreme pianissimo will be familiar from a brace of award-winning Czech programmes.
Based, like Myaskovsky’s 23rd Symphony, on ideologically vetted Kabardinian folk materials, Prokofiev’s Second Quartet is one of the most immediately attractive quartets in the repertoire. It dates from 1941 when the two men were evacuated to the relative stability of the Caucasus and points east. That Prokofiev’s young companion Mira Mendelson was in tow might explain the jollity of the outer movements although their music can be tough as well as witty. In the wondrous Adagio the cello line rises high, ghostly melodic statements in octaves can expose the smallest tuning difficulties and pizzicati needs must sparkle like ice. The young players pass every test before dispatching the inventive finale with equal aplomb, differentiating a wide variety of moods and timbres within a swiftish frame.
The strenuously wrought First Quartet comes off just as well. It’s a pre-Soviet score and hence formally heretical as well as rather more advanced harmonically. After the sometimes Bartókian vehemence of the Vivace element at its core, the work winds down to end slowly on a note of sustained expressive intensity. The concluding Andante, much admired by Myaskovsky and subsequently transcribed for string orchestra, is rarely tackled with the passion you find here. While not as measured as the American Quartet (Olympia, 2/90 – nla), the players give the invention just enough space and are certainly better tuned.
The Sonata for Two Violins, written to Parisian order in 1932, takes in a variety of manners, rhapsodic and intimate as well as brusque, without always persuading us that it is more than the compositional exercise adumbrated in the booklet-notes. Not the fault of its eloquent exponents I’d say. The third movement would seem to be played without the optional mutes.
Of the small clutch of “classic” performances of the component pieces, none is more usefully programmed than the present disc, nor so naturally recorded. Why hesitate?